Friday, July 27, 2007

Nelson's Friends

(In deference to Lee Strong’s piece “Gratitude” it was good that he reminded us of the joy of singular graces. It also inspired me to finish this story.)

When the wind rushes head long into the trees Nelson Doolittle stretches his ears, closes his eyes, and watches his mind scramble a frenetic dance in an effort to put a handle on this newly created sound.

It is the sound of the ocean 100 giant steps behind Aunt Rose’s summer cottage.
“Mother may I?”
“Yes, you may.”

It is a sound that when he hears it, from indoors, makes him peek out the window expecting to see rain landing on the sidewalk. It is a sound that always surprises him. It is a sound he grew up with, always familiar but always different, so that whenever he hears it he always has to look around to reaffirm its source. This sound is not of the present but one that always sings of past experiences. It is the sound dinosaurs made on their way to extinction.

Even the birds stop their musings when the wind and leaves raise their voices as one. In the soft breeze it is the sound of satin petty coats worn by little girls walking the isle to First Communion. In a sudden gust it is the sound of the veil of the temple being torn in two. It is the echo of a soul decrying, "Certainly this man was innocent."

On hot summer days it is the sound of a thousand wood sprites laughing as if they finally got the joke. In the fall it is the sound his grandmother made busily preparing Thanksgiving dinner. It is a sound that always makes Nelson smile.

It is a sound that never sits still long enough to truly capture or firmly attach a label to, like the love he harbors for his children.

Whenever his wife talks about cutting down the two big maples in the back yard he always changes the subject, or speaks of the benefits of shade on the utility bills, he never just tells her no.

He would like to tell her the real reason, that the trees sing to him, that they carry him up into their arms and tell him stories. If he did that, Nelson knew, she would look up at him through lowered eyebrows and say, “You’re full of crap,” and the trees would be gone.

What would Chesterton Think?

It has come out into public knowledge that some astronauts have violated the 12 hour "bottle to throttle" rule to the point of sobering up in space. Im sure there have been many bar jokes involved about the metabolism of alcohol in zero gravity.

At one level, the system is broken because no matter what the rule might be space launches are such high profile events that scrubbing a mission over alcohol consumption would be a PR nightmare. Also, this is high level science and engineering, and one would seemingly want to be at 100% in order to perform at top level.

On the other hand, there is a point where a little bit of bravado is a useful thing. Using the idea of "high level science and engineering" again, one needs to keep the mindset of not being intimidated of the craft and the situation. Ive been handed a drink on my way to board a C130 to a warzone, and I understand both the tradition and the practical element.

I dont know the full set of facts, NASA obviously is running a troubled ship after the last astronaut debacle, but Im not so quick to be scandalized by this as some others. Im quite curious how Chesterton would have viewed all of this......."Why is this gentleman going exploring, when he so obviously already found what he was looking for?" Perhaps?

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, July 26, 2007


Brave New Family contains an early Chesterton short story, "Homesick at Home" (It's also contained in the collected works).

A man travels around the world to get back home, searching for what he already had.

The story reminded me of an assignment a spiritual advisor gave me.

I tend to be a cynical, sarcastic sort, prone to wallowing in the shadows too much.

So my assignment was to write down at least three things I was grateful for each day. They didn't have to be profound things, just things that brought me a sudden flash of joy.

It hasn't been easy!

Here's a few:

riding my bike

rabbits along the bike trail

dad moving to a rehab unit

a teaching contract for next year

riding the New York-Vermont ferry

White Face Mountain through the mist

a baby at Mass

a man complimenting some things I wrote

fireworks over Mirror Lake

a bat circling me

Gilbert magazine arriving with one of my clerihews in it

gold finches at the bird feeder

rereading To Kill a Mockingbird

birds building a nest outside my father's hospital room

Maybe I don't need to go searching for a "White Farmhouse by the river" after all.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

“I cannot believe that the Human Reason will permanently lose its power. Now the Faith is based upon Reason, and everywhere outside the Faith the decline of Reason is apparent.

But if I be asked what sign we may look for to show that the advance of the Faith is at hand, I would answer by a word the modern world has forgotten: Persecution. When that shall once more be at work it will be morning.”

Nice review here
Read on line here

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Still alive

I spent the weekend (and early Monday) in London (Ontario, not the real one) finding an apartment for the coming school year, and as such was not in any real position to blog about anything, much less Chesterton. The rest of Monday was spent in traffic, as the highways were all choked with imbeciles and construction. What should have been a three hour trip ballooned into about seven.

Anyway, I'll be more constant once school starts again and I'm actually on the computer with some regularity. As it is, most of my time is spent reading, writing, watching films, working, etc. I haven't even been reading any Chesterton lately, though not because I don't want to; I've just run out of books of his to read, and don't want to buy any more until after I've gotten my tuition and texts and whatnot sorted out. For the moment I've had to content myself with Flaubert's Salammbo, Lucy Beckett's excellent In the Light of Christ, and the final installment of the Harry Potter saga, about which much could be said.

But not right now, and certainly not without extensive spoilers. I'm tired, and getting more so.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Street Fight Part 4

This Goya painting is titled “Dual with clubs”. It was one of his Black Paintings, a product of his dark period after the Napoleonic Wars and the turmoil of the Spanish government. “He had an acute awareness of the panic, terror, fear, and hysteria that was running rampant through Spain at the time”. Some think these paintings show that his spiritual battle ended in the belief that some men are so far into the lie that they can not be brought back to the truth, thus Goya developed an embittered attitude towards humanity. This painting is of two men determined to beat each other to death and it is so senseless because as they swing away they are both knee deep and sinking in quick sand. They could save each other but no, in this battle both will die and nothing will remain. They are mean and stupid it is not their meanness that makes them dangerous but their stupidity. Goya feared stupidity especially armed stupidity. There is nothing you can do about it and you can not appeal to it.

This belief, that some cannot be saved, is an easy one to fall into but it was not the case with Goya. Goya was painting warning signs. This one is saying that above all that this belief, that some cannot be saved, is not a truth. What is the truth is that you or I, in some instances, can not bring them to the Light. Only the Holy Spirit can do that. Some times He uses us to help and sometimes that job goes to another. It is when we cannot do it that brings us to despair but that is only wounded ego. And sometimes people just refuse to go no matter what we do, as told in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce.

Goya’s warning signs were painted direct to the walls of his house where he was reminded every day of what he was up against. They are loud statements about what’s wrong with the world. But unlike what the historians tell us of his later days these painting are proof that he was not in complete despair. An artist in complete despair and hopelessness does not work – to do art or any great creative act one must have hope. He fought the world with the only weapon he had – pigment.

If this belief, that some cannot be brought back to the Light, were true we would not now know of such people like St. Augustine, St. Francis or C.S. Lewis and Chesterton for that matter.

Chesterton used words to do this battle. I am sure that after reading H. G. Wells’ Outline of History, Gilbert could have easily said, “This is what the world has come to and there is nothing I can do about it”. Instead he gave us Everlasting Man. This along with What’s Wrong with World he created two huge warning signs telling us that the ‘bridge is out up ahead – turn back now’.

Both Goya and Chesterton did not pick up clubs and bludgeon the enemies of truth, Goya’s paintings were never meant to leave his house they were for him and his friends and Chesterton’s writings were never an attack as much as they were a powerful flashing light house in the fog so that we may not crash onto the rocks. He gave us the truth in an uncompromising manner or as they say over at Catholicity “get the facts decide for your self”. Chesterton also debated the “dark side”.
The one thing that marked the Chesterton/Shaw debates - they were civil. Civility is now considered a weakness not a virtue.

I mention all this because Tammy wants to escalate our newspaper fight to one of dual with clubs. She wants to convince me that there are circumstances where abortion is hokay and I should leave her alone about my stance that, no there are not. She made an excellent attempt to goad me into a personal meeting. She used the playground technique of ‘You are hiding behind your keyboard so meet me behind the gym after school or I’ll tell everyone you are a coward’. After several very uncivil types of emails form her, I at first said yes then I realized I left the playground a longtime ago and her opinion of me matters not. I also remembered what my Dad once told me, “Never go out of your way to be with angry people.” I then declined the meeting.

I felt bad about that because maybe I was chosen to be the one to bring her to the truth and in fact I was a coward. But after reading her latest Op-Ed piece I knew I was not the man for the job. She is in too deep and I do not have enough rope to throw her. She has written several times that Israel has no right to exist and in her inverted reality that in fact Israel is the aggressor not the victim in the mid-east conflicts. Now in her latest piece she wants us to believe that the attacks on 9/11 were a CIA plot, possibly in conjunction with Israel, to convince us to go to war with the enemies of Israel and that radical Islam is not the real problem.

She begins her piece recounting the 1999 movie “… The Matrix is based on the premise that everyday life is a dream and that the real world – one where comatose humans serve as energy sources for alien robots – is a closely guarded secret. Keanu Reeves’s character discovered the truth and was offered a choice: take a pill and forget everything or see “just how far the rabbit hole goes.” This week I am offering readers a similar choice: skip over today’s column or venture with me down that rabbit hole.”
(OK never mind that they were not alien robots but a machine of human design. Or as GKC said, “We will soon become slaves to our own inventions.”)

This is the pill of reality she wishes to give us:
She recounts a 45 year old declassified document call Operation Northwoods which states in part how the CIA could launch terrorist type attacks on the US and blame the Cubans thus giving us a cause to go to war with them. She twists and turns from there to involve both the CIA and the Israeli government in the 9/11 attacks, proof being that between 8/26 and 9/11 some Israeli citizens “sold short” 38 stocks, some of which were airline stocks. There is the profit motive. Also that there is evidence that Israel is spying on the US. She thinks that The Israeli government knew that the 9/11 attcks were going to happen but did not tell us. Maybe they did but no one listened, like no one listened to our own FBI on the likelihood of such an attack.

Now Tammy may not know or ignores a couple of facts: First, that there are people in the U.S. government whose 9-5 job is to come up with scenarios that involve how to start a war, how to fight a war and how to win a war. There are no rules in this office and every idea is permissible, these “plans” are then forwarded to higher-ups. Second is that the US government did not implement Operation Northwoods.

Many paragraphs on current conspiracy stuff follows then she ends with:

“Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu characterized the 9/11 attacks as “very good”. Moments later he added, “well, it’s not good, but it will generate immediate sympathy.”
Sympathy and justification for unprecedented U.S. aggression against countries that don’t recognize Israel.
So when another “Fort Dix Six” are nabbed for an alleged terror plot, or the next time a “pro-Western” official is assassinated in Lebanon, a church is bombed in Gaza or Iraq, or a shoe bomber” is arrested on an airplane remember the deception of our own government and whose interests it serves to keep fomenting the bogus “War on Terror”. Ask yourselves if radical Islam is the real enemy.”

I’m sure she will soon have proof that the shooters on the grassy knoll were Israeli operatives.

Tammy believes I am out to discredit her but with more Op-Ed pieces like her recent one I don’t have to – she is doing a fine job of it all by herself.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Sick dad

My dad is back in the hospital, and has taken a turn for the worse. Not life threatening yet, but serious. We just learned now he will need surgery - which in his condition (75, with blood sugar, partial paralysis due to a stroke) is risky.

I've been spending time with him and I've been so distracted I just realized I forgot to do my Thursday entry.

I will make up for it when the dust settles.

Weekend Thoughts

Greetings Everyone,

I just got my new issue of Catholic Men's Quarterly in the mail this week. I have to say that Im very impressed with the improved layout and design quality. The stuff they actually wrote about was terrific as well.

I like CMQ's focus on masculine spirituality, and particularly their features of Saints from military or missionary backgrounds. This quarter they did an excellent feature set during the Viking Age.

This is quickly becoming one of my favorite time periods, and I think Chesterton spent some mental energy there as well. Ballad of the White Horse has become one of the books that I am constantly re-reading. This area fascinates me in many ways. The Crusades/Inquisitions/Gallileos and all of the other things which complicate later periods were yet to happen. What we have at this time is no bureaucracy, no true nations, no real civilizations, just the stark heroism and holiness of true Saints whose lot in life was even worse than St. Paul - he at least got to preach in Athens and Rome, among civilized people. I really feel lacking that I dont know more about St. Patrick, St. Brendan, St. Adalbert(?) St. Bede and the others of this time. The names seem antique to us, and this is unfortunate.

The History Channel recently had a feature on Alfred the Great, and I think they did as good a job as they are capable when dealing with a Christian figure. I dont know if Chesterton ever made a direct connection between our (his) times and the era where paganism and Christianity vied against each other as active forces, but I think Somebody said Something about a "New Evangelization" which hits the mark.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

New Gilbert is Here

It's the summer movie edition, one of my favorites every year. Art Livingston (also one of my favorites) offers up two reviews, including one of Bogart in which he claims that In a Lonely Place is Bogey's best. I'd like to write more, but I'm a bit under the gun in other areas of my life right now. Hopefully, some more tomorrow.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Old Thunder

John of the Combox notes that we (almost) missed today's anniversary: The 54th anniversary of the passing of Hilaire Belloc. It hadn't crossed my mind. My great shame. I'll have to hoist an extra one tonight.

Wikipedia, incidentally, has a good entry for Belloc.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Weekend Thoughts

Only one comment on this item: I cannot believe the media fuss over the Pope standing up for Catholic teaching. I hope the people wasting the ink and paper over this are just going through the motions. I really do not get what is so shocking over this.

To keep on the catholic theme.....The universality of Chesterton never ceases to amaze me. If people were handed some of the Pope's writings without a byline, and actually read them I think that there would be a positive reaction to the depth of thought, wonderful use of language, and sincere compassion for the human condition. Nobody is going to read the Pope, even incognito. This is what we get from Chesterton. He restates the old truths in such a way that we do not realize that we are reading The Baltimore Catechism in veiled form. The deep universal truths of Chesterton appeal across the board to folks at totally different ends of the spectrum. He is quoted by Tai Chi hippies, Catholic homeschoolers, mystery fiction fans, peace activists, saber rattlers, Anglophiles, and even once in a while by academics. In the years Ive been following Chesterton this appeal across "party lines" never ceases to amaze me.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Pope Benedict, Chesterton, and the Church

I took exception to something in my local newspaper.

The paper has a series of blogs, some written by citizens (such as one that I do for them), some by staff members.

This appeared in the “Editorial Blog” written by one of the newspaper’s editors.

The pope pontificates

Any other Catholics out there a mite perturbed at the way Pope Benedict is going at ecumenical relations? First he makes a point of endorsing the Latin mass, within which are prayers that offend Jews. And this week he says that non-Catholic Christian churches are defective. He says he's not undermining Vatican II. But that is very much the impact of these public statements. Repudiating Vatican II is an impossibility for this pope or any. But the pope can find ways to dismantle at what he and others feel was the door leading to the very fractured Catholic Church of today.

I responded in two posts:

He's simply restating what has always been the official teaching for those who cared to read it rather than relying on what they hear and "popular" (mis)interpretations.

From the Documents of Vatican II - "This is the sole Church of Christ ...."

"... in this one and only Church of God from its very beginnings there arose certain rifts, which the Apostle strongly censures as damnable. But in subsequent centureis much more serious dissension appeared and large communities became separated from full communion with the Catholic Church ..."

There are more instances in the Documents of Vatican II, and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

In this case, then, he is simply stating what Vatican II said, not undermining it.

Endorsing the Latin Mass? The Latin Mass has been said in Rochester for years - with official approval - at St. Stanislaus Church, so it has already been endorsed by Bishop Clark according to the rules promulgated by Pope John Paul II. All Pope Benedict did was loosen those rules to make it easier to say it. So there might be wider use of that Mass. But he did not repudiate the Novus Ordo (post-Vatican II Mass), and that will continue as the main (and most likely only) Mass in most places.

One of the things that drew me to Chesterton was the story of his conversion – which I encountered years ago during a time when I had questions about the faith (I resolved them).

Part of what stuck me was his certainty that the Catholic Church was THE Church.

As he noted in The Catholic Church and Conversion, “And it is simply a historical fact that the Roman Church is the Church and is not a sect. Nor is there anything narrow or unreasonable in saying that the Church is the Church.”

Chesterton in the Desert

From The Life and Legacy of Russell Kirk by George H. Nash:
Kirk's drifting ended abruptly in August 1942 when he was drafted into the Army. For nearly four years he lived in the desolate wastes of Utah (and, later, at a camp in Florida) as a sergeant in the Chemical Warfare Service. In one respect, Kirk's wartime experience proved to be invaluable: As a clerk with largely routine duties, he found a large amount of time to read. And read he did—Albert Jay Nock's Memoirs, Chesterton's Orthodoxy, Irving Babbitt's Democracy and Leadership, the political thought of Walter Bagehot, and countless classics of English and ancient literature.

hat tip to Denny


Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Book Den has a nice post about the meeting of GKC and Max Beerbohm. Excerpt:

One of the most delightful and inviting notes I've ever read was one I came across while perusing the G.K. Chesterton folders in the British Museum a couple of years ago. The note was in a beautifully flourished handwriting on indiscriminate sides of a card. It was directed to Chesterton from the irrepressible drama critic, radio broadcaster, artist, sometimes author, and forever bon vivant, Max Beerbohm. The date was May 4, 1902.

(Note: For whatever reason, I couldn't get Blogger to accept a title for this post.)

Monday, July 09, 2007

Words mostly fail me

Note: The possibility exists that the article here discussed is some sort of excessively-veiled satire. If so, this post is irrelevant and is evidence of my humorless inability to construe things properly.


Normally when an article proposing some new approach to the ethics of sexuality comes along, particularly in the New York Times, there are certain standard tropes that are employed, and certain standard reactions to those tropes that can be effectively and rightfully produced to counter them.

Every once in a while, an article comes along that makes this difficult. More rare still is an article so insulting as to make charity itself seem difficult.

This is not one of those articles. This is transcendant.

What does one say to this? On a bare technical level it's fairly poorly-written, repeating itself frequently and to little effect. But what it proposes confounds rather than enrages, at least at first (the rage sets in afterwards, and does not let up).

The article in question, by one Steven E. Landsburg (author of The Armchair Economist and not Freakonomics, as was previously and incorrectly reported), is an excerpt from a new book of his which appears to be dedicated to solving the world's problems by approaching them as an economist would. It's hard to get closer to "treating human beings as numbers" than this, clearly, but he presses on regardless. I mentioned at the top of this post that there's a possibility all of this could be satire. A comment left in the reader reviews of the book in question has similar concerns:
"At first these crazy suggestions were amusing, but as they kept coming, I wondered: Is he serious or just screwing around? The crazy unsupported ideas made me skeptical of the ones he seems to be trying to defend more seriously, because it seems he's more interested in shocking people than in reach seriously supportable truths. "
Dr. Landsburg's record indicates that he really does believe in his idiosyncratic economic approach as being one of real transformative and analytic power, anyway, so I'll take the article at its word for the time being.

The general jist of the piece is that the best way to combat the spread of sexually transmitted disease, AIDS included, is to encourage promiscuity among sexual conservatives. It is concluded that this makes it less likely that any given sex-having person will unluckily find himself coupled with someone spreading diseases (because sexual conservatives, being cautious by nature, don't tend to have 'em). Further to this, it is cheerfully proposed, such disease as is passed on - AIDS included, once again - has an increased likelihood of winding up in one of the sexual conservatives here discussed, who, being sexually conservative, will simply curl up and die rather than promiscuously passing it on to other people. Hurray!

All of this is supported with the most exquisite logic, of course, factored into which is the proposition that sex is enjoyable. That is, the author is using the release of endorphins and mere personal delight as logically-vital premises to a conclusion that would (and is apparently intended to) sicken and kill people who would otherwise be both harmless and unharmed.

But that's alright. Sexual conservatives - with particular emphasis on those who are completely chaste - are compared to "polluting factory owners" who only care about themselves. Sexual conservatives, the article suggests, should stop being so greedy and selfish and start having sex with people in hopes of contracting a fatal disease that might otherwise have infected someone likely to pass it on. The author's respect for the virtue of self-sacrifice would appear to be unimpeachable. Indeed, the author candidly admits that what's good for the group is often not ideal for a given individual.

He admits this, as I said, while implying that people should be ready to simply die for sex rather than give up the pleasure such dangerous behavior scandalously provides.

How do we get sexual conservatives to come out of their shells, though? Disdaining to consider the issues of just why a person would be sexually conservative in the first place, the author concludes that free or heavily-subsidized condoms are the answer, as though the extravagant price (?) of the things is what's keeping us from leaping into the fleshpots. The author gravely admits of this difficulty, instead proposing some program whereby positive rewards rather than discounts are applied to condom use. Other ideas in the fields of "combatting their shyness" and "providing them with partners" are bandied about. The article ends shortly thereafter.

The argument outlined in this article is both monstrous and inhuman, not least because it does not actually treat its eventual victims (for such they are) as human beings (for such they are), but rather as elements in a sort of equation, the goal of which is not to stop the AIDS epidemic (the author finds the idea impractical, it seems), but rather to maximize everyone's pleasure in the face of consequently inevitable doom. Such nihilistic barbarity refutes itself when considered candidly.

Above I described this article as a rarity, but I see now that the term might be paradoxical in this case. This piece manages to be wholly unique in infamy while simultaneously being perfectly emblematic of the spiralling, noisy collapse of an entire world.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Summer Catch up

I apologize for my lack of appearance here. Last few months have been chaotic professionally and family wise, but it looks like things are under control now.

I have 2 thoughts to share that seem to have come up alot lately.

Conscience: Probably getting back in the news because of the politicians saying they vote their conscience. This term is used so much without any regard to its definition. The formation of true conscience is the art of a lifetime. Conscience is not "how I feel" about something being right or wrong. For heaven's sake, cheat on your spouse 4 times and the 5th wont bother your "pseudo-conscience". Kill 6 people and the 7th wont bother you much either. We now live in an age where any question of fact or definition can be answered in less than a second, except for the meaning of the term in question.

Juvenile Philosophy: My daughter, age 3, loves rats. She was wondering how rats pray. She attempted, "Jesus love rat-god, amen rat angels." Her brother, age 6, said, "No, no. This is how rats pray, 'squeak squeak; squeak-squeak, squeak.'" Folks that is Plato(with some Gnosticism) and Aristotle in a nutshell.

Have a great weekend.

Friday, July 06, 2007

I've been on vacation and on the road this week, so I didn't get around to my writing my usual Thursday post. Mea culpa.


On Independence Day Thomas Brewton mentioned our friend Belloc. The article was picked up by many independent web news sites including The Post Chronicle:
Security, however, amounts to selling one's soul to the Devil for materialistic gain.

Hilaire Belloc described it in his 1912 book, The Servile State. He noted that, while the just-beginning socialist state in Great Britain was doing nice things for workers, it was at the price of their liberty to decide whether to work, when to work, or where to work. Recipients of unemployment benefits, for example, had to report to employment offices and take whatever jobs were offered to them, or face punishment.

Socialism is a form of slavery, or more accurately, a sort of neo-feudalism in which the individual has no rights independent of the figurative “piece of ground” to which the political state has assigned him.


Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The old Anglo-American quarrel...

The old Anglo-American quarrel was much more fundamentally friendly than most Anglo-American alliances. Each nation understood the other enough to quarrel. In our time, neither nation understands itself even enough to quarrel.
G.K. Chesterton's Introduction to American Notes

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Dixie GKC

A blogger asks, "Was young GKC a Confederate sympathizer?"

I'm reasonably certain that the young GKC and the older GKC were both sympathizers, but I invite comments on the matter.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Undelivered(?) mail

Here's something of a rare gem for you. It's a trifle long, but it's certainly worth the time.

As we all know, Albino Luciani (Pope John Paul I) died very soon after his election to the throne of St. Peter; so soon, in fact, that he was unable to produce any documents as pope, magisterial or otherwise. His election was one of the swiftest in history, however, and his smiling face was a welcome one to the people of a weary world. There was something passionate and real about him that delighted even as it intrigued, and it is a great loss to us indeed that he was taken so soon.

What, then, survives him besides his memory? Various lesser-known works are available, but the most famous of them all is a series of letters that were never answered. This may sound bizarre, and on the surface the description is accurate. Still more bizarre, even, given that the reason for this lack of reciprocity was because the addressees were all either long-dead or figments of fiction.

Illustrissimi, first published in 1976, is a collection of letters written by Luciani to famous historical figures and characters from art and literature. The value of such an exercise is enormous, both as a delightful hobby and as a way to collect one's thoughts. Samuel Johnson famously (or so I would have it) described the merits of writing as a way to "enable the mind to detect its own sophisms;" writing to someone, even someone who can not answer, as such, enables such detection and more.

The volume is a thick one, and it must be read in full to properly appreciate its merits. There are dozens of letters to be examined and considered, addressed to figures as diverse as Mark Twain and Pinochio; Empress Maria-Theresa of Austria and St. Therese of Lisieux; Aldus Manutius and the members of the Pickwick Club; St. Luke the Evangelist and Jesus Christ.

There is also - which concerns us the most - a letter to one Gilbert K. Chesterton, written in 1971. That letter follows in full.


Dear Chesterton,

On Italian television, these past months, we have seen Father Brown, that unpredictable priest-detective, a typical creation of yours. Too bad Professor Lucifer and the monk Michael did not also appear. I would have been happy to see them, as you described them in The Ball and the Cross, traveling in an "airship," seated side by side, Lent next to Carnival.

When the ship is over St. Paul's Cathedral in London, the professor hurls blasphemy at the Cross. And the monk says: "I once knew a man like you, Lucifer.... This man also took the view that the symbol of Christianity was a symbol of savagery and all unreason. His history is rather amusing. It is also a perfect allegory of what happenes to rationalists like yourself. He said, as you say, that it was an arbitrary and fantastic shape, that it was a monstrosity, loved because it was paradoxical. The he began to grow fiercer and more eccentric; he would batter the crosses by the roadside.... Finally in a height of frenzy he climbed the steeple of the Parish Church and tore down the cross, waving it in the air, and uttering wild soliloquies up there under the stars. Then one still summer evening as he was wending his way homewards, along a lane, the devil of his madness came upon him with a violence and transfiguration which changes the world. He was standing, smoking, for a moment, in front of an interminable line of palings, when his eyes were opened. Not a light shifted, not a leaf stirred, but he saw as if by a sudden change in the eyesight that this paling was an army of innumerable crosses linked together over hill and dale. And he whirled up his heavy stick and went at it as if at an army. Mile after mile along his homeward path he broke it down and tore it up. For he hated the cross and every paling is a wall of crosses. When he returned to his house he was a literal madman.... He broke his furniture because it was made of crosses. He burnt his house because it was made of crosses. He was found in the river."

Lucifer was looking at him with a bitten lip.

"Is that story really true?" he asked.

"Oh, no," said Michael, airily. "It is a parable. It is a parable of you and all rationalists. You begin by breaking up the Cross; but you end by breaking up the habitable world...."

The monk's conclusion, which is also your own, Dear Chesterton, is correct. If you take away God, what remains, what does mankind become? In what sort of world are we reduced to living?

But it is the world of progress, I hear some say, the world of well-being!

Yes, but this vaunted progress is not everything that was hoped: it also brings with it missles, bacteriological and atomic weapons, the current process of polution: things which - if provision is not made in time - threaten to bring catastrophe on the whole human race.

In other words, progress with human beings who love one another, considering themselves brothers, children of a single God the Father, can be something magnificent. Progress with human beings who do not recognize God as a universal father becomes a constant danger. Without a parallel moral process, interior and personal, that progress develops, in fact, the most savage dregs of mankind, making the human being a machine possessed by machines, a number manipulating numbers, "a raving barbarian," Papini would have said, "who instead of a club can wield the immense forces of nature and of mechanics to satisfy his predatory, destructive, orgiastic instincts."

I know: many people think the opposite of you and of me. They think that religion is a consolatory dream: it is supposed to have been invented by the oppressed, imagining a non-existent world where they later will recover what is stolen from them today by their oppressors; it is supposed to have been organized, entirely for their own advantage, by those oppressors, to keep the oppressed still under their heel, and to lull in them that instinct of class which, without religion, would impel them to struggle.

It is useless to point out that it was precisely the Christian religion that fostered the wakening of the proletarian consciousness, exalting the poor, announcing future justice.

Yes, they answer, Christianity awakens the consciousness of the poor, but then it paralyzes it, preaching patience and replacing the class struggle with faith in God and gradual reformation of society!

Many think also that God and religion, directing hopes and efforts toward a future, distant paradise, alienate man, prevent him from fighting for a more immediate paradise, to be achieved here on earth.

It is useless to point out to them that, according to the recent Council, a Christian, precisely because he is a Christian, must feel more committed than ever to fostering progress, which is for the good of all, and to supporting social advancement, which is meant for everyone. The fact remains, they say, that you think of progress for a transitory world, while waiting for a definitive paradise, which will not come. We want paradise here, as the end of all our struggles. We already glimpse its rise, while your God, by the theologians of secularization, is called "dead." We agree with Heine, who wrote: "Do you hear the bell? On your knees! They are carrying the last sacraments to God, who is dying!"

My dear Chesterton, you and I do indeed fall on our knees, but before a God who is more alive than ever. He alone, in fact, can give a satisfying answer to these three problems, which are the most important for everyone: Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going?

As for the paradise to be enjoyed on earth, and only on earth, and in a near future, as conclusion of the famous "struggles," I would like people to listen to someone much more gifted than I and - without denying your merits - also than you: Dostoevsky.

You remember Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov. He is an atheist, although a friend of the devil. Well, he protests, with all his atheist's vehemence, against a paradise achieved through the efforts, the toil, the sufferings, the torment of countless generations. Our posterity happy thanks to the unhappiness of their forebears! These forebears who "struggle" without receiving their share of joy, often without even the solace of glimpsing the Paradise emerging from the Inferno they are going through! Endless multitudes of the maimed, the sacrificed, who are merely the humus that serves t omake the future trees of life grow! Impossible! Ivan says, it would be a pitiless and monstrous injustice.

And he is right.

The sense of justice that is in every man, of whatever faith, demands that the good done, the evil suffered, be rewarded, that the hunger for life innate in all be satisfied. Where and how, if not in another life? And from whom if not from God? And from what God, if not from the of whom Francis de Sales wrote: "Do not fear God in the least, for He does not want to do you harm; but love Him greatly, because He wants to do you great good"?

The one that many are fighting is not the true God, but the false idea of God that they have formed: a God who protects the rich, who only asks and demands, who is envious of our progress in well-being, who constantly observes our sins from above to enjoy the pleasure of punishing them!

My dear Chesterton, you know as well as I, God is not like that, but is at once good and just; father also to prodigal sons; not wanting us poor and wretched, but great, free, creators of our own destiny. Our God is so far from being man's rival that He wanted man as a friend, calling him to share in His own divine nature and in His own eternal happiness. And it is not true that he makes excessive demands of us; on the contrary, He is satisfied with little, because He knows very well that we do not have much.

Dear Chesterton, I am convinced, as you are: this God will become more and more known and loved, by everyone, including those who reject Him today, not because they are wicked (they may be better than either of us), but because they look at Him from a mistaken point of view! Do they continue not to believe in Him? Then He answers: I believe in you!


Interesting stuff. This brings the number of popes who have openly engaged Chesterton in some way to four (Pius XI, Pius XII, John Paul I, Benedict XVI), so far as I know; if you can think of any other instances, we would very much like to hear them.